By Anna Jensen
“It was an incredibly moving experience. I had spent a lifetime training domestic horses and every interaction I had with a horse was trying to improve or fix or somehow solve a problem. The experience of going to Sable Island to appreciate the beauty of the horse as a species was absolutely cathartic for me.”
Debra Garside has spent a lifetime in the horse business. As a teenager growing up on Vancouver Island, Garside rode hunter jumpers, and soon found herself a professional grand prix and hunter rider, trainer, judge, course designer, and show manager. I met Garside a few years ago at a summer show at Thunderbird Showpark, just outside Vancouver. There, as a spectator wandering the vendor area, her dramatic canvas’ of the wild horses of Sable Island stopped me in my tracks. Their muscled bodies mid-rear, their wild, long manes whipping through the winter air, their gorgeous primal nature captured in time. Garside has dedicated her life to nature photography with her business True North Fine Images. Since 2007, the award-winning photographer has had her focus on the wild horses of Sable Island. In 2010 she published her first book, “The Wild Horses of Sable Island: A Horseman’s Journey. “I think when you know your subject intimately you can predict when certain behaviors are going to happen so you can really be ready for the shot. Out of a thousand shots you might wind up with ten you really like. Because I know horses so well and because I know what horse people like to see in an image, I am able to choose images that really resonate with horseman.”
Back in the mid-eighties, after riding professionally under many others, Garside decided to venture out on her with True North Stables. As anyone in the horse business understands, that became all consuming. “I enjoyed the competitive aspect, don’t get me wrong,” said Garside. “But for me the thrill was always taking that young horse, that diamond in the rough or that horse with a problem, and developing that horse and trying to allow that horse to be the best it could be.” Eventually the day-to-day reality of dealing with customers who weren’t always on her same wavelength grew tiresome. “One of the things I didn’t like about the horse business was I thought there were not enough like-minded people, and I found it difficult to teach people who would not appreciate their horse - Who only used them as a machine or a tool to accomplish their sport goals. That was really when I started to become disenchanted with the sport.” Garside decided to sell her equestrian center, and following her own “true north,” she started exploring.
“ I went to Patagonia, Antarctica, and Alaska. During that time I rediscovered photography, which had always been sort of a latent passion of mine.” Garside sought out mentors, and professional photographers, and every one turned her back to her horses. “They would always go to my horse photos as my strongest images. So that led me to investigating where are the wild horses that I want to photograph? You know, because photography was supposed to be the non-horse part of my life.” Wanting nothing to do with commercial horse photography she began to research Sable Island, a small sandy island about 200 miles southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Nearly 400 horses roam the island, famous for causing over 350 shipwrecks due to thick fogs and treacherous ocean currents in the area, which still inhibit travel. And once on the island, it was far from paradise as Garside described the challenges. “You have a fifty/fifty chance of getting off the ground on the day you book a flight. One third of the year the island is fogged in and a plane can’t land if it’s too windy, too foggy, or if the beach where the plane lands is too wet or too dry.” Permission had to be granted by the Canadian Coastguard, in charge of the island, to let her stay and live in their staff quarters. To Garside, the hassle of getting to that little sliver of sand and grass was well worth it. “I knew the history of the horses, which was fascinating, but nothing could’ve really prepared me for that personal experience of just being there with the horses.”
The horses of Sable Island are the only unmanaged wild herd left in the Americas. They have been there since the mid-1700’s and historical accounts say that when the Acadian settlers were deported from the Nova Scotia area their livestock was confiscated and a merchant from Boston took the horses over to the island because he wanted a foothold on it. The horses that roam the island now are descended from that herd. In the beginning of the 1900’s thoroughbred, draft and Morgan stallions, among others, were introduced to the herd to increase its size and health. At that time, a small community of about 50 people lived on the island, manning the lifesaving station there and domesticating some of the horses.
“Those horses were used for everything from farming to mounted beach patrol and dragging lifeboats to rescue sites. They were really multi-purpose horses,” says Garside. “Because they’ve been so isolated, they have really unique adaptations to their environment- particularly the tolerance they have for drinking water from the ocean. Being on the island and experiencing horses in their natural state - not interfered with by people, really gave me a sense of what can happen without human intervention and how a species can flourish,” explained Garside.
There are no predators on the island, so the harsh weather proves to be the horses’ biggest enemy. The herd is also protected from what wild horses in the United States are in danger from- the political battle between mustang enthusiasts and the livestock ranchers who consider them a pest. The Sable Island horses have been fully protected by the Canadian government since 1960.
“Wild horse management is a complicated question,” said Garside. “I think people kind of get camped on one side of the fence or the other as far as how to do that.” Garside hopes her work and her passion for the animals not only introduces people to their untamed beauty, but also fosters a more far-reaching effect for other wild-horse populations. “The Sable Island horses are protected now. They’re safe. But because they are so unique and have such a fascinating history people are drawn to them and I think indirectly, they can be the poster children for wild horses everywhere. Our history was built on the backs of these animals and they deserve our respect,” said a passionate Garside.
Helping the cause of wild horses may be the broad goal, but the past six years spent in the presence of the horses has been a much more personal journey for Garside. “As a trainer of domestic horses, you don’t always get to see the herd dynamics that take place between stallions and mares and foals together in a group with different herds interacting with each other. I’ve learned so much from just being able to observe body language, mannerisms and the way horses communicate with each other.”
Garside remains fascinated with the difference between wild and domesticated horses, since she adopted two yearling Alberta mustang colts, Flyer and Preacher. “ The wild horses are so street smart - that’s the best way I can describe it. They’re not screwed up by people so their reactions are true. Training those colts has been a completely different experience.” Garside believes wild horses make great trail and ranch horses, and one of her colts is headed for a future in the hunter-jumper world. “If they’ve spent any time in the wild they have learned respect. Our show horses grow up mostly isolated from the herd environment. They are handled from birth and so generally speaking, hand-raised domestic horses do not respect people the way a wild horse does. They learn the herd pecking order right from the beginning. My two colts have absolute respect for me. It takes them longer to trust me, but once they trust me they will do anything for me - like if they get their leg tangled in a rope or they step on their lead shank they don’t pull back or freak out or anything. They stop, they calmly think about it, they figure out which leg to move next, and they figure out how to extricate themselves.” Garside believes all this savvy comes from herd influence. “Last year the water in my stock tank accidently froze over, and they all came, one at a time, to get a drink. They all looked at it, realized it was frozen, and turned and walked away. My black colt, the youngest, walked over to the water, saw it was frozen, picked up his foot and smashed the ice and started drinking!”
Now, with her advanced understanding of herd dynamics, learned from time spent on Sable Island, Garside says her intuition has sharpened. “I think I’ve always been a really good reader of horse body language, but I think I’m much better now. When we train domestic horses, we read that horse’s body language as it relates to us, but we do not understand where that body language comes from. It comes from how that horse would behave around other horses. It’s called anthropomorphizing, and it’s not helpful.” That view brings a decidedly different perspective to how she interacts with students. “I try to get them to see things the way the horse sees them. If a horse doesn’t want to do something, it’s not because that horse is being stubborn, it’s because that horse has a reason and we need to understand that reason through the eyes of the horse.” Garside’s shift goes beyond just being a more understanding and aware horsewoman. “Perhaps the biggest shift for me has taken place from the perspective of what constitutes beauty. I still love a beautiful eye, a great top-line and a nice mover. But my appreciation has widened to something less tangible. There is an intensely personal aspect to developing trust with an animal that has been born in the wild and not been tarnished from human influence. Now, for me, it’s more about appreciating the horse as it is, and allowing that horse to be the best it can be.”
Garside left the show horse world but couldn’t leave horses. “As a child, I grew up reading beautiful storybooks about Misty of Chincoteague that had beautiful illustrations of horses swimming through the ocean and galloping on the beach. I guess everything eventually comes full circle.” Garside seems to have realized after all the years of teaching and training, that it is she who is really the student of these magnificent creatures. “I wish I had some profound wisdom or epiphany to bestow upon those who show interest. The truth is, that observing wild horses and handling captured ones, has only served to show me how little I really know about horse behavior, and that the door has been opened into a fascinating world that will undoubtedly take a lifetime, or what is left of mine, to decipher it to the best of my ability.”
Moving from a rigorous schedule of shows, goals and accomplishments, Garside has found her true north, her personal path, and it is through the unknown. “I have no idea where this will lead, and therein lays the beauty and enchantment of it. Perhaps in time I will have more answers.”
Debra Garside’s second book, “The Wild Horses of Sable Island: A Horsewoman’s Journey” is available on her website, truenorthfineimages.com. For information on joining Garside on a trip to Sable Island in the future please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org